Spirituality: Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism

For a long while, I’ve avoided writing about my spirituality. There are a number of reasons for this, I think:

  1. It’s complicated. There are a number of highly specific theological concepts at work, and honestly, it’s a lot to explain.
  2. It’s personal. My spirituality rests in the center of who I am. Sharing it with the world also opens it up to exposure, so that’s a pretty intimidating leap.
  3. It’s uncertain. I have always been a seeker, and so there’s no telling where the future of my spirituality may take me.

And yet… Because my spirituality is such a huge part of my life, this blog isn’t quite complete without exploring it. (As Cady says, “If I don’t cover [Aristotle]/[Kant]/[Nietzsche] in this course, you should sue Hamline for malpractice!”) And I can’t let such a conspicuous absence go untouched.

So let’s begin, as they say, in the beginning. This is a long post – bring a tent!

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I was born into a pretty liberal family. My mom and dad always challenged me to think for myself and to develop my own education on certain topics. Because my dad had rejected religion at a young age and my mom enjoyed religion only occasionally, ours was also a very non-practicing family. I attended Sunday School briefly when I was a kid, but I was never confirmed and was Lutheran in name only.

By the time I hit high school, the hypocrisy of my small town’s religious landscape had become excruciating and isolating. Everywhere I looked, men and women who claimed to follow Christ committed such gross acts of ignorance and prejudice that I became utterly disappointed. Everyone was either Lutheran or Catholic, and in my homogenous rural farm town, the two were barely distinguishable from each other and the denominational label was irrelevant. On the whole, religion seemed to be a hypocritical power structure that contributed virtually nothing to people’s daily lives. Before I ever voiced it, I rejected Christianity and rejected “organized religion” in fairly short order.

So, then I came to college. If asked about my spiritual views, I would have said something like: “Oh, I’m spiritual… but not religious.” This was my way of sustaining my inner soul, all while continuing to distance myself from the Christianity of my hometown and organized religion in general.

But these mental acrobatics didn’t last. In a matter of months, two life-changing things happened:

First, I became a regular participant in Religion courses at Hamline, and it wasn’t long before it began to influence my academic decisions. I’d been dead-set on a Criminal Justice and Psychology double-major, but I soon dropped Criminal Justice in favor of Religion. Religion courses and faculty became one of my favorite parts about Hamline, and now I am a Religion major only.

Second, I began attending Multifaith Alliance. I came to my first meeting on a whim I barely remember, but then began attending every week. The discussions, the food, the community – I loved it, and it became my sacred space throughout the week. I began to develop a certain amount of leadership in the group, and when the incumbent leader asked me to take over while she studied in Ghana, I readily agreed. We split leadership after she got back, and today I am enjoying my fourth consecutive semester of leading Multifaith Alliance.

Besides these two factors, I also fell in love with research opportunities. Last summer I explored a Biblical Studies project revolving around the Northern Irish conflict, and now I’m working on improving my project while studying in Dublin. Next summer I hope to research again in preparation for my senior honors thesis. Academia and research are undying loves for me, and I intend to dedicate my career to them.

Finally, interfaith activism has also become a profound passion of mine. I am capitalizing on a number of organizations, initiatives, and networking opportunities to improve religious pluralism in my community, and I am rapidly becoming an activist for that cause. Multifaith Alliance has definitely influenced and motivated this drive for me, and I plan to apply it as much as possible in the future – including applying for faith-based and progressive internships.

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But academia, research, extracurricular involvements, and interfaith activism engagements are not the whole story. All of these things are simply what I do; they are not who I am.

Over the last couple of years, I have explored the Baha’i Faith, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and most recently, Buddhism. Some of these have been purely academic explorations: studying Hinduism was for a book club, and Islam was a January term course. But a few of these have been highly personal and informative spiritual explorations, namely Judaism, Christianity, and perhaps Buddhism.

Throughout this complex and multifaceted journey, I have come to a place of… discernmentI think I have finally come to be able to define what I want, and what I want to believe.

Probably the easiest explanation may be through a letter I wrote my parents some months ago. In an attempt to clarify my beliefs and intentions, I wrote the following:

“As both of you know at this point, I have been attending synagogue pretty regularly on Friday nights. It’s pretty much the geekiest thing ever and is usually followed by playing Harry Potter Clue at Adam and Mikayla’s… but to my surprise, it has proven to be something I really treasure.

My attendance and experience of these services speaks to me in ways I am only beginning to understand. Jewish culture, traditions, holidays, and services seem to fit me like a second skin, and I can relate to them on a lot of emotional and spiritual levels. In addition to that, the experience has dovetailed amazingly well with the progress I’ve made on my Biblical studies project. I’ve been studying ancient Israelite history stretching from Creation and Abraham all the way through the Maccabbean revolt and the Hasmonaean dynasty, and the possibility of being able to identify with that family lineage seems astonishingly beautiful. Altogether, such a personal relationship with God throughout history and today seems like something I’d really like to get involved in.

That being said, it’s not simply Judaism and the Old Testament that has struck me; I have also been doing more than a little soul-searching on the subject of Christianity and the New Testament. (Now, stick with me on this, and hear me out.)

Obviously, Jesus Christ was a Jew. He was born into a Jewish tradition stretching back over four thousand years, and was the Jewish son of a Jewish family. He grew up in the Jewish faith and read Jewish scriptures and taught Jewish laws to a Jewish audience about a Jewish God. He died and was given a Jewish burial, and for many hundreds of years afterwards, there was virtually no difference whatsoever between Jews and Christians. Even during the time of Paul (a Pharisee until his conversion on the road to Damascus, and later Christianity’s first missionary), there was no distinction. Christ, his apostles, and the later Paul all considered Jews to be perfectly good Christians. This is because Christ’s message was primarily two-fold:

1. Wisdom and moral teachings (again, always coming down the pipe from an extremely long line of Jewish tradition/mysticism)
2. Radicalizing and re-emphasizing Jewish law.

#1 is pretty self-explanatory; Jesus’ Jewish-ness is obvious, and it’s well known that Jesus was a great moral teacher.

But #2 is the particularly interesting part. Jesus and his followers essentially said to everyone, “Right now, you [Jews of the era] are following Jewish law in an attempt to get into heaven, where you think you’ll be saved. That’s wrong – the truth is, guys, you’re already saved. Heaven isn’t a mythical place you’ve got to gain entry to; it’s right here on this earth. Now you’ve got to live like it. Live like the people of God that you are, live with inner truth and wisdom and beauty and faith. The laws will help you commune with that.”

Do you see what I mean? Ultimately, Jesus and his followers were advocating, through wisdom and moral teachings, the way to live life as heaven on earth, and live as saved peoples – they were not advocating the people to kill themselves over trying to get into a mythical afterlife, and they were not focusing on rules or doctrines as salvation.

It wasn’t until much later, several hundred years after Christ, that the budding Christian community began to assign such things to Jesus as him being the literal “Messiah”, him being the “Son of God”, him having been conceived by a virgin Mary and the Star of the Bethlehem and the wise men and everything. And it wasn’t until much later that “kingdom of heaven” and “salvation” became such loaded, guilt-ridden terms.

Does that mean that Jesus wasn’t divine? Absolutely not – I happen to believe Jesus may very well have been a divinely sent messenger of “the way” of God. Furthermore, I also believe he could very well have been the physical manifestation of “the way” – the same “way” advocated by other world religions. (An author named Marcus Borg expounds on this pretty well.)

So, what am I saying?

I want to be a Jewish Christian. I want to be both at once, as Jewish Christians once existed in history. I want a Jewish life with Jewish culture, traditions, history, and theology. In addition, I also want to strive to imitate Christ’s teachings and his life. I want to do the best I can to follow his wisdom and moral teachings, live like heaven is here on earth, and live like the saved person I am. I want to recognize him as possibly having been a divinely-sent messenger of the way we should live. I do not, however, want to recognize him as later traditions do, as the Messiah or the biological Son of God.

For that reason, I am also going to start attending worship services at a congregational church on Sundays. Who the hell knows if I’ll like it or feel welcomed? But I’m going to try it. There’s gotta be people who can get with me on this, and I’m going to find them.”

July 30, 2009

Since I wrote that letter, I have not yet made good on my determination to attend a non-denominational Christian service.

As much as I am beginning to identify myself as a Jewish person, I have not yet been able to determine my relationship to Christianity. I definitely know what my views are, and I know how I feel about Christ; I do not know, however, how those views will be interpreted in either the Jewish or Christian faith traditions.

As I continue to develop my Jewish identity (at what point do I become a Jew?), I will have to determine how I interact and relate to Christianity as a tradition. It may well be that my viewpoints are perfectly at home in a fairly progressive Jewish community; in that case, I will explore them there. But it may also happen that Judaism does not provide the appropriate venue for me to do that, in which case I will have to seek additional opportunities.

This issue is a surprisingly important one for me, and one I am continuing to work out on my own.

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You’ll notice that the title of this blog post is “Spirituality: Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism”. In this epic, we’ve explored each of these in turn… except for the last. Just what the hell does Buddhism have to do with it?

Well, to be honest, I don’t really know. I’ve just begun taking a Buddhism course, and I’ve noticed a startlingly wonderful event emerging.

In previous chapters of my life, I’ve always wanted to convert to every religion I set eyes upon. A running joke in my chemically dependent family is, “Run it past me, and I’m addicted!” I don’t smoke or drink or use drugs, and so I think I’m like that with religion instead. But when I began to investigate Buddhism, I realized that I actually didn’t agree with it. Not right away.

But as I began to explore the fundamental concepts of Buddhism and began to interpret them in a metaphorical, progressive way, I began to see the value of Buddhist thought. In particular, I came to understand that Buddhism builds a belief structure around that simple addage, “This too shall pass.”

Through interpreted ideologies, sutras, and meditative/devotional practices, Buddhism teaches you to let go, to live above grasping and aversion, to live above temporal confinement, to live attentively and serenely. Most accurately put, Buddhism teaches you to live authentically. In keeping with these themes, Buddhism is surprisingly existentialist, which speaks to me in a big way. (Kierkegaard’s around the corner somewhere, I know he is!)

So, I’m beginning to consider the possibility of incorporating sitting meditation into my religious practice. I don’t want to convert to Buddhism – I’m on a perfectly good spiritual path on my own! – but I do feel that Buddhist meditation may add a certain peace and wisdom to my life. That’s something I look forward to exploring, and I’m excited to see if it works for me. It’s particularly compelling, I think, because I’m terrible at it! I’m an awful sitter, and so I’m curious to see how I develop and improve over time.

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In a long and roundabout way, we’ve explored my spirituality, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. My spiritual and religious practice is constantly growing and evolving, and it’s such a complex and multifaceted journey that it does, in fact, take miles of blog to write about it! It really helps me to get my thoughts out, and I think it makes this blog a fuller and more honest space.

Thanks for sticking with me on this little novel. I really appreciate it. And thanks for listening!

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2 Responses to “Spirituality: Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism”

  1. joshuaslane Says:

    This journey has to be incredible for your life. I’m so pumped right now for you! It’s good to know someone in my life is so healthy spiritually. It just warms my heart 😉 haha.

    I remember writing a letter to my dad maybe my freshmen year about how God didn’t exist. It’s really odd now thinking back at it. It’s also odd I still believe some of those points, but at the same time would say my spirituality is at its highest right now.

  2. christina leiva Says:

    This is the first year that I celebrated Hannakuah, and I am not even Jewish, but have been drawn to it since I was in college, which mind you was a Christian college. I relate as well to it’s beautiful traditions, rituals, and prayers, and somehow feel that perhaps in another life (if that exists) I was Jewish. However, I too believe that Jesus was a great enlightened messenger who had a powerful message to bring to mankind, but do not believe that he was conceived the way the bible says he was. I also relate much to the mediation, and mindfulness of Buddhism. I see it more as a way of living, and extremely similar to Christianity…but guilt free. The contemplatives, such as Thomas Merton lived a life much like the buddhists did, so I don’t see it as entirely separate from Christianity. I found your blog, from typing in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism..because I am trying to find how I can live all of this in one, and find this type of fellowship with others… I am also considering conforming to Judaism, but do not want to become religious. Does that make any sense?
    Anyway, thank you for your blog, and for your transperancy. Happy Hannakuah, and have a wonderful holiday.

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